Three Great Kyivan Rus Reformers

A short period in Ukraine's medieval history was full of humanism, Christian love, and justice. It is associated in our memory with three prominent statesmen.

Unlike Kyivan Rus's other grand princes, who were crafty fratriciders, greedy tax-collectors, and vulgar robbers who challenged their huge state, laying from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, with feuding and civil wars for centuries, these three are remembered for their positive achievements to the Ukrainian state. However, they were also the offspring of their cruel times and had to struggle violently for power with their relatives. They later justified themselves by claiming they had not sought personal wealth, but prosperity for their state.

Volodymyr the Baptist
(Circa 958 - 1015 - artistic representation in the photo at the top)

The church canonized this secular leader for baptizing the Kyivan Rus in 988. Saint Volodymyr was the son of Grand Prince Svyatoslav and his concubine. This extraordinary fact explains why no one knows exactly when he was born. When Volodymyr was young, he eliminated his rivals and also led his army against Poles, Lithuanians, and the Slavic Pechenig tribe.

Having tamed Kyivan Rus and its neighbors with his warriors and terror, Volodymyr, influenced by European monarchs, decided to strengthen his empire with a state religion. His choice was Byzantium's Orthodox faith.

When baptizing Rus, Volodymyr demonstrated his stamina and firmness, just like in wartime. He ordered his soldiers to bring the people to the Dnipro, where Byzantine priests were waiting for them. They also tore down the statues of pagan gods.

…The wooden idols were floating along the wide Dnipro, complaining of their fate to the deceased Slavic chieftains…

Kyivan Rus stepped irreversibly on the path of Christianity, slowly forgetting its barbaric traditions. This was a long evolutionary process. Polygamy was repealed and serfdom was abolished. Volodymyr the Baptist also changed. He was kind and friendly to everybody: he freed his slaves and let his heathen wives go; he called on his people to love one another and made generous donations, he even thought it was sinful to sentence criminals to death. Chroniclers metaphorically wrote that Volodymyr was "clothes for the poor, food for the hungry, a helper to widows, a shelter for the homeless, and a defender of those without hope."

Yaroslav the Wise
(978 – 1054)

Volodymyr was called by his people Volodymyr, the Red Sun. His son Yaroslav is known in history as Yaroslav the Wise. His contemporaries must have had reasons for that. Yaroslav ruled the state for forty years after eliminating his untalented rivals. Kyivan Rus was very powerful during his reign. To celebrate his victory over the nomadic tribe of Pechenegs, Yaroslav built a magnificent cathedral, whose golden domes are still among Kyiv's most beautiful adornments, and founded an academy for scholars in it.

Diplomats said Yaroslav was Europe's father-in-law, as his daughters were queens in several European states. The most famous of them all was Anne, the queen of France, and the wife of King Henry I. Yaroslav's greatest achievement was his code, The Truth of Yaroslav, which was a revised collection of the Old Rus laws.

Not only did Yaroslav systematize the existing laws and traditions but he also adapted them to his time. The code included a list of punishments for every crime and wrongdoing, such as murder, arson, theft, rape, and many others. The state guaranteed the inevitability of punishment and criminals paid fines, a part of which was given to the state. The life of a rich resident of Kyiv cost eighty hryvnias, while the murder of a slave cost only six. This was a huge sum, however, as one could buy twenty sheep or one ox for one hryvnia back then.

Volodymyr Monomakh*

Yaroslav's grandson Volodymyr was named Monomakh in Byzantium, as he was also the grandson of Byzantine Emperor Konstantin IX Monomakh. However, he became famous not because of his great ancestors but because of his remarkable talents. Monomakh was an outstandingly skillful commander. He was respected by all social classes as a statesman. This did not happen instantly.

Once he suppressed a revolt staged by Kyiv's desperate beggars but did not punish them too cruelly. He reduced taxes twofold, which appeased society. He soon realized that his country's main enemy was not its neighbors, but its own rulers. Traditionally, the Kyivan Rus grand princes allowed only their sons or close relatives to rule their provinces. All these princes were locked in a relentless power struggle. Monomakh used his talents to help the provinces compromise.

He invented a method of "reasonable rotation" for those seeking the coveted throne in Kyiv. In his Instructions for the Children, one of the most famous literary monuments of the Middle Ages, Monomakh called on his sons and the whole elite to be fair, honest, and live in the "fear of God." He managed to convene all the princes in one hall twice, making them kiss a cross and swear to never encroach on their neighbors' land. Unfortunately, as soon as the princes returned to their provinces, they unsheathed their swords.

…Andriy Bogolyubsky, the grandson of Kyivan Rus's grand princes and the ruler of the Moscow Suzdal Principality, committed a terribly blasphemous act after Monomakh's death and before Mongolian Khan Batyy's birth. In 1169, he suddenly invaded Kyiv. The capital never fully recovered after that barbaric intrusion. Before Batyy's army approached the eastern border of the Kyiv principality, the state changed rulers nine times within five years. Kyiv had no ruler during Batyy's siege. Commander Dmitriy was in charge of defence operations. No other prince offered his help to the capital. Their cities died alone after Kyiv fell…


It is now 2016 but little has changed since that turbulent period. We love our brothers verbally but almost never cordially. Rus' noble raiders are succeeded by modern raiders who were not raised in palaces but grew up in Soviet slums. Even in the twenty-first century we break oaths and are often disloyal to our allies.

- *The Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5 (1993) reported: "Volodymyr married Gytha, the daughter of the English king Harold II, and founded the Kyivan, Smolensk, and Suzdal lines of the Riurykide dynasty. In 1966 Debrett's Peerage, Baronage, Knightage, and Companionage published the statement that Queen Elizabeth II was descended from Volodymyr Monomakh. He was the last prince of Rus' to preside over a unified state. He is buried in the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.